How Will 3D Printing of Lenses Impact Labs?

By Brian P. Dunleavy
It’s too soon to say whether or not 3D printing of spectacle lenses will revolutionize lens processing as we know it, but the technology is no longer some pie-in-the-sky concept. It has officially arrived in the United States.

On November 1st, Winston-Salem, NC-based IFB Solutions went online with the new 3D printing platform developed by Belgian firm Luxexcel. The technology has been used in other fields for decades, and has been behind significant innovations in medical imaging, among other specialties. However, it is believed that Luxexcel’s system at IFB will be the first to commercialize the 3D printing of ophthalmic lenses.

“We absolutely view 3D printing as breakthrough technology in the industry,” Dan Kelly, chief operating officer for IFB Solutions, told LABTALK. “The ability to print specialty lenses with this technology will reduce the delivery time from weeks to hours. And, it can also reduce the thickness of the lenses which will reduce weight and make them cosmetically more appealing.”

IFB processes more than 1,000 lens pairs per day, with many of them in the category of “specialty jobs,” including slab offs, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as one of its biggest clients. According to Guido Groet, chief commercial officer of Luxexcel, this makes the lab a perfect fit for 3D printing technology. At present, Groet said, Luxexcel has focused its efforts—at least in the U.S. market—on developing its “Vision Platform” for use in the processing of specialty lenses quickly, accurately, efficiently and cost-effectively. It has made a conscious decision, he added, to stay on the sidelines of the “high-end and high-volume” market segments, at least initially, “We will be focused on producing lenses for those individuals with more complex vision challenges,” Kelly noted.

From a processing perspective, the Luxexcel Vision Platform is essentially designed to replaces several pieces of conventional lens processing equipment, including surfacing generators, blockers, tapers and polishers. It consists of industrial grade optical 3D-printers, lens-design software and workflow integration tools, which enable the production of ophthalmic lenses that meet all industry standards.

“With 3D printing technology, we can design and produce specialty lens designs that more effectively address patient needs for vocational, lifestyle or special prescription requirements that cannot be produced with existing production technologies available today,” said Michael Walach, President, Quest Vision Care Specialty Lab. “The benefits are enormous for the industry as well as for the planet, [because there is] virtually no waste. Of course, at this time, the 3D technology is in diapers, barely crawling. I can’t wait to see where it will take us when it begins to walk or gallop. I believe that the Luxexcel 3D lens printing technology will not inhibit but, to the contrary, enhance and inspire lens designers’ creativity.”

IFB, which is the largest employer of individuals who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S., plans to have individuals who are blind or visually impaired operate the platform, for which it is paying on a per-use basis. The lab has been working with Luxexcel for more than a year and a half in beta-testing the technology and the lenses it produces. According to Kelly, Luxexcel staff were on-site at IFB starting in mid-September, training technicians and overseeing the install.

“We want to be early adopters for three key reasons,” Kelly said. “First, we fully believe in the capability [of 3D printing technology] to transform this industry now and in the years to come. Second, as one of the largest independent labs in the country, it is a competitive advantage for us to be on the front edge of this emerging technology. And third, the technology is very well suited to our current business… and meeting rising demand for specialty lenses.”■


LABTALK March 2019